Big tech is doing it wrong
Blog by: Quirine van Eeden
Imagine you are a creator and you want to present or sell your illustrations, writing or video to an online audience. You want to earn some money by presenting your work online, but how do you do that without using online platforms with perverse revenue models? After all, the online world has become a place where commercial tech giants set the rules. As part of our mission to make the internet a public space again, we’ve started the 'MicroMemberships' project to investigate what open and fair online revenue models should look like. In this blog series we provide insight into a number of well-known online revenue models for creative makers, investigate to what extent they are open and honest and explain a number of promising innovative ideas.
The work of artists can increasingly be found online. As a result, these creative makers enter into all kinds of new relationships with their audience, including in a financial sense. The most common variant is that the public gets to see the creator's work for free and the creator earns income through advertisements or donations. Another form is that the public pays – periodically or otherwise – for content that is behind a paywall.
These payment methods influence the relationship between the maker and her audience. Platforms are able to monetize this contact in all sorts of inventive ways; with the emergence of the above-mentioned type of online revenue model, the relationship between maker and audience is increasingly becoming transactional. Think of an artist who, for example, has to keep the click rate high online. The emergence of this type of transactional relationship in the arts is also fueling a wider debate. This concerns, for instance, the question of whether this transactional relationship (expressed in numbers) should be a benchmark for measuring the success of an artist in order to be eligible for grants or subsidies. Or whether such revenue models should even serve as an alternative to current scholarships and subsidies. That is why the time is now to critically examine these online revenue models and their underlying values.
Online platforms not only influence the interaction between the creator and the audience. When you enter the internet as a creative, virtually every digital space to present your work has been appropriated by a company. There's a lot of human interaction going on, but the tone and shape is dictated by the design choices, filtering algorithms, and preferences of a handful of tech companies. As platforms, these tech companies know how to bring together and organize the supply and demand sides of a market and thereby have created an indispensable role for themselves.
Over time, by integrating all kinds of services, platforms have become serious ecosystems that dictate the rules of a particular market (which are mainly beneficial to them). Platforms dominate the market and have made you as a user structurally dependent on it (the so-called 'vendor lock-in'). This platform dynamic has a number of characteristics.
- The platform tries to attract large numbers of users to their service, for example by making the service free. By going big, platforms benefit from network effects and minimal marginal costs.
- The platform uses closed technology. In this way it shields its revenue model from the outside world, in the service of shareholders and the owners of this technology.
- The platform collects large amounts of data to construct a granular picture of their users. This allows it to deliver a personalized offer (and new services) leveraging user profiles that it has created. In some cases, products are also offered on the platform.
For a while, the corona crisis seemed to be fertile ground for new revenue models that could break the omnipotence of these large platforms. The 'creator economy', in which creators monetize their online content, took off enormously. Through Twitch, Patreon and OnlyFans, creatives could offer their work through subscriptions, tips or crowdfunding, making their income streams less dependent on the tech giants. These revenue models also made it possible for creative makers to no longer have to use tracking. Yet these platforms turn out to be more of the same. The platforms have similar service models, pursue comparable scale with their hunger for data and use closed technology.
This platforming dynamic is particularly problematic for artists for whom artistic freedom is of great value. Platforms offer their services in such a way that the work and the interaction between the artist and the audience is forced into a mold. Platforms are designed to use simplified, universal parameters to categorize and qualify each user's behavior (more on that in one of our next blogs, or see artist Aiwen Yin's essays. The architecture forces us to create profiles using interests and traits suggested by the platform. The work we post on our timeline has to fit the pre-prepared personas and hashtags. The architecture of such platforms leaves little room for previously unclassified persons, ideas or work. In addition, the content policy is currently very arbitrary. Platforms can block content and users at their discretion. While a platform like Patreon likes to position itself as a place where creators can build independent careers, podcast producer Anshuman Iddamsetty told the New Yorker that erotic self-portraits have faced some unexpected barriers.
In our mission to make the internet a public space again, we are investigating within the 'MicroMemberships' project what open and fair online revenue models for creative makers can look like. We use 'MicroMemberships', a revenue model in which artists can organize themselves in collectives and which the public can join for a small amount per month, as a possible model to properly answer this question. We will tell you more about this in the coming blogs. Our preliminary suspicion is that artists probably don't even need that much to organize themselves well online and present their work; a payment service and a simple database would probably help them on their way. Complex platforms (and their perverse dynamics) may not be required for that at all.
On Thursday June 23, we organize a public MicroMemberships event at Waag. Speakers Pia Mancini (open collective) and Calum Bowden (Black Swan) will share their experiences with existing revenue models. Together with the public, we will then investigate what new revenue models could look like. This way we try to become less dependent on Big Tech. Join our research!